Food Matters: Hibernation is for cubs | AspenTimes.com

Food Matters: Hibernation is for cubs

Amanda Rae

As the 2017-18 winter season's final après-ski winds down across town last Sunday, chef Vinnie Bagford and wife, Xuan Ha, brace themselves for a whirlwind night at Bamboo Bear. Patrons queue up by the front counter of the brightly lit entryway, and the owners recognize most of them.

"What's up, Charlie?" Bagford calls out from the open kitchen, as a regular claims a tall seat along the dining counter facing the line. "Wassup, Thomas? Happy Closing Day!"

While many Aspen restaurants have cut the lights, locked the doors, and hung up the obligatory offseason notice, Bamboo Bear is hunkering down to celebrate a rebirth of sorts. Recently the restaurant completed a choice expansion of 315 square feet into the space formerly occupied by Tulips Body Waxing Studio next door, looker's right.

The addition, which seems to double the diminutive eatery's footprint, is awash in the same lime-green, red and yellow paint and decorated with materials Ha sourced while visiting her homeland of Vietnam: shaved bamboo and coconut palm leaf hand-cut and woven together into decorative wall coverings with the help of her mother. This new side of Bamboo Bear offers low-top seating for another 18 people—crucial for families with children and less mobile folks who might not be so keen on perching at a high-top table or the counter—boosting total capacity to more than 40.

Quips Ha, a hospitality veteran who assembled all of the decorations: "It's more Vietnamese now."

Another welcome newcomer: a legit restroom. "Too many women would sniff at the bathroom we had downstairs," Bagford says with a laugh.

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"People expect an Aspen experience," continues Bagford, who ran the Cliffhouse at Buttermilk with Ha for six years before opening Bamboo Bear in June 2016. "Hopefully more people can host here. Now we're an elevated restaurant."

Bamboo Bear's menu of authentic Vietnamese fare—light, flavorful cuisine characterized by fresh vegetables, complex broths and sauces, rice noodles, and tons of fresh herbs including Thai basil, cilantro, scallion, and mint—will expand for summer as well, thanks to Bagford's rotating staff of four cooks and expeditors.

A colorful menu board lists a plethora of new options for pho (Grandpa Ha's recipe), including pork meatballs and brisket; bestselling ribs, which are marinated, braised, fried, and tossed in sweet-spicy "bear breath" sauce; Thai chopped chicken (larb) with fish sauce, lime juice, and herbs, served with rice and Bibb lettuce leaves to make wraps; hearts of palm salad; authentic pork bánh mì street sandwiches; a crispy chicken cutlet, available to supplement dishes including a zippy rice noodle salad, rice bowls, and bánh mì. Upcoming specials might include whole roasted duck and seafood soup.

This summer, Bagford will jam on fruits of the sea: crab, mussels and his signature whole fish (recently pink snapper), fried until crackly into a stunning masterpiece, as it arrives balanced on the plate as if swimming beneath a hearty drizzle of tamarind sauce. Recently the chef acquired some authentic Vietnamese clay pots, which he'll use for casseroles and stews, perhaps mussels in his coveted yellow curry. All are based on traditional family recipes, which Bagford has learned on frequent trips overseas and adapted to the Aspen palate. (Ha's relatives, for instance, make yellow curry with frog.)

I spoon heaps of yellow chicken curry—tonight's special—into my mouth while Bagford explains the process. Unlike, say, Thai curry, which is prepared as a sauce to drench meat and vegetables cooked separately and chosen in a mix-and-match style by customers (hence the various varieties offered on a typical Thai restaurant menu), Vietnamese curries are slow-simmered, one-pot stews.

First Bagford makes a crunchy garnish by shallow frying shallot and garlic in oil. After skimming out the crispy bits, he uses the fragrant oil to cook onions and a homemade paste of ground spices, chiles and aromatics. In goes chicken meat and stock, then chunks of white potato, sweet potato, and carrots. The whole shebang—dairy free, thanks to coconut milk—simmers into a rich gravy, which, Bagford explains, should be used to dress the rice, not the other way around. (Don't dump the rice into the bowl, he warns.)

The finished curry is the color of roasted dandelion flowers but delicate in body; the aromas and flavors of spices is intoxicating. No wonder it's a favorite of the APD; officers have asked Bagford to call the station when the dish is on special. (Because this yellow curry is so labor intensive, it's not a regular menu item—yet.)

As a pleasant heat envelops my mouth, I wipe my perspiring brow. (Still, I learn that this is nothing compared to the "Dragon Bowl," see sidebar, opposite.) I reflect briefly on how I came to Bamboo Bear on this particular evening—a typical story of offseason serendipity. I'd been checking out at City Market when I bumped into Bagford, buying a big bag of onions to replenish the restaurant's addictive pho broth. Now groceries sat, some defrosting, in the passenger seat of my Jeep. Earlier I'd wondered where I might grab a quick meal as daylight faded and dinner called; now I was grateful to not have to cook back home. On the heels of a lame winter season, Aspen feels like a ghost town already.

Which is why it's comforting that joints such as Bamboo Bear (plus The Red Onion, White House Tavern, Meat & Cheese, Jing and others) are sticking it out through spring. Bagford sees keeping Bamboo Bear open during this time as his way of giving back, since the fate of the building—set to be demolished, eventually—hangs in limbo. Bamboo Bear received yet another lease extension through summertime, possibly beyond.

"There's no end date," Bagford confirms. "It sounds like they're doing the other projects before this."

In coming weeks the couple will reinstall outdoor seating beneath a shade tree and continue to augment the summer menu at what is now a sizable restaurant with ample sit-down dining.

"This corner should be vibrant…something the community can be proud of," Bagford concludes. "Locals are the ones who keep us rolling, so we're gonna keep the party rollin' through offseason at the Bamboo Bear."

amandaraewashere@gmail.com; @amandaraewashere